by the Tallahassee Democrat
February 25, 2017
Local officials governed by Florida’s Sunshine Law cannot speak to one another outside public meetings, leaving them predominantly influenced by staff and special interests.
The media says this prevents “back-room deals” between board members, but they ignore the fact that staff and special-interests groups are allowed to sway and pick-off elected officials behind closed doors, without the public’s knowledge of these private conversations.
In the Florida Legislature, we are also lobbied by staff and special interests, but are able to share ideas, plan and thoroughly vet proposals with our colleagues, because we can talk to each other one-on-one.
Final decision making by public officials must occur in properly noticed open meetings. However, we know that in meetings held just once or twice a month, officials choose only the priority items to discuss at the dais. Hundreds of items are not discussed, and questions are not asked.
New information brought by one board member or staff in a public meeting doesn’t give others enough time to contemplate the information, properly question or debunk it. The result is mediocre policy due to lack of planning and careful consideration by our representatives.
That’s why I’ve proposed HB 843.
- HB 843 allows two members of a board to meet one-on-one without a publicly noticed “meeting.” This could be a phone call, discussion in passing, email, cup of coffee or actual sit-down meeting. Currently, in order to have any discussion between two board members, members must provide public notice in advance, publish an agenda, allow the public to attend, take and publish minutes.
- HB 843 prohibits collecting votes behind closed doors (daisy-chaining), identical to current law. Officials cannot promise or indicate how they would vote.
- HB 843 prohibits private discussions about appropriations, contracts or expenditure of funds outside of the agency. That’s right – back-room deals are specifically prohibited.
- If HB 843 becomes law, it would sunset after five years and would need to be reauthorized to continue.
I’ve talked with many officials in state and local government. The vast majority had the same response: “This is a really good idea, but the media is going to go after you.”
I discussed my ideas at a SWFL legislative luncheon, and was met with thunderous applause from current and former local officials.
Like you, I value transparency at every level of government, and appreciate Florida’s leadership on “government-in-the-sunshine.” However, after serving on two boards under Florida’s Sunshine Law, I experienced the brutal inefficiency of local boards, and I recognized the unhealthy influence of staff and special interests in the decision-making process.
I am willing to take on this contentious issue, because I believe proper balance is in the best interest of the residents of Florida.
Florida’s Sunshine law should penalize bad actors, while allowing good actors to use their judgment and expertise to serve their constituents to the best of their ability. The current system frustrates our most qualified officials and drives them away from public service.
We should always be willing to review, examine and question existing laws. If we value self-governance, we should not be afraid of this policy debate.
I look forward to continuing the conversation, and I hope that all viewpoints are respected.
Byron Donalds, R-Naples, is a House member of the Florida Legislature.